LEESBURG, Va. (AP) — On immigration, taxes and women's issues, Mitt Romney is abandoning his "severely conservative" talk of the Republican primary season and moving sharply to the political center as he looks to sway on-the-fence voters in the campaign's final three weeks.
At the same time, the GOP presidential nominee's advisers and the Republican National Committee are looking to give Romney more routes to reaching the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory. They are weighing whether to shift resources from North Carolina, where Republicans express confidence of winning, into states long considered safe territory for President Barack Obama, including Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
The evolving strategy comes as both candidates work to capitalize on their second debate-stage meeting, a Tuesday night face off in which Romney emphasized his bipartisan credentials as well as his efforts to hire women while Massachusetts governor, and declared, "I'm not looking to cut taxes for wealthy people."
One day after the debate, Romney's camp conceded that Obama had a strong performance and mapped out a plan for the Republican to focus on the economy in the coming days, including delivering a speech on spending and debt early next week. Romney also intends to continue aggressively reaching out to the narrow slice of moderate, undecided voters.
The former Massachusetts governor, who described himself as "severely conservative" in February, offered a moderate message while appealing directly to women voters Wednesday in Virginia, which Obama won four years ago and is up for grabs now.
"This president has failed America's women," Romney told an estimated 3,500 supporters Wednesday gathered outside Tidewater Community College in Chesapeake. "They've suffered in terms of getting jobs. They've suffered in terms of falling into poverty."
At an evening rally in Leesburg, he cited the struggle of single mothers and called for more cooperation in politics.
"I want to ensure that we come together as Republicans and Democrats. People of all the states, come together," Romney said at an evening rally that drew 8,500 to northern Virginia.
He also has softened his tone on women's issues as he looks to cut into Obama's polling advantage among women.
Romney's opposition to Planned Parenthood was a common theme during the primary, and Obama hammered the Republican on Tuesday over his plan to cut funding for Planned Parenthood, the network of clinics that provide women's health care and also provide abortion services.
Romney hasn't backed away from that stance; his plan to cut Title X, which funds family planning health services, is still listed on his website. But he isn't quick to talk about it either. Earlier this month, he told the Des Moines Register's editorial board that he didn't intend to pursue any abortion-related legislation as president, and then back tracked.
Romney had also been careful not to take a position against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. That bill, the first Obama signed as president, requires employers to prove that differences in pay are related to qualifications, not to gender; it also allows more time for employees to sue employers if they are discriminated against.
Romney adviser Ed Gillespie said Tuesday night that Romney had opposed the Ledbetter legislation all along but, a day later, the aide said he had been wrong.
Looking to cut into Obama's polling edge with Hispanics, Romney assailed Obama on Tuesday for failing to live up to a promise to try to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. He tried to offer a sunny explanation for a phrase he favored earlier this year: self-deportation — essentially, creating employment and enforcement conditions so harsh that immigrants are forced to leave.
During the primary season, Romney insisted he wouldn't talk about a comprehensive plan until the U.S. border with Mexico was more secure.
"Secure the border. Once we do that, we can start talking about the 11 million or whatever number that may be that are in the country illegally," Romney said in a debate in Iowa last year.
Romney also is emphasizing his plan to overhaul the nation's tax system, including the declaration that wealthy Americans won't get a tax break under his plan. The campaign's internal polling during the debate found that to be his most popular line, along with his promises to help small businesses and reduce the nation's deficit.
The tax pledge is a departure in tone, if not policy, from his position during the primary, when his comments were squarely focused on his plan to cut tax rates by 20 percent across the board.
"By reducing the tax on the next dollar of income earned by all taxpayers, we will encourage hard work, risk-taking, and productivity by allowing Americans to keep more of what they earn," Romney told the Detroit Economic Club earlier this year.
Tuesday night, it was a different message. Said Romney: "I'm not looking to cut taxes for wealthy people. I am looking to cut taxes for middle-income people."
Hunt reported from Washington.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.